Telluride, Colorado, is a natural stunner. A mining village turned ski resort, the town’s main street is lined with Victorian architecture, fine-dining restaurants and old saloons, and it all sits under a mountain-covered horizon. For those who crave hiking and biking, the great outdoors couldn't be closer. Trails lead from the town center to waterfalls and alpine summits. And when the snow finally melts, this tiny Southern Rockies town at 8750 feet blossoms into the unofficial festival capital of the world.

Telluride’s festival season offers everything from jazz to film to a challenging 200-mile bicycle ride. Here’s how to make the most of your Telluride festival experience.


The historical district downtown maintains that mining-town feel. Image by Ken Lund / CC BY-SA 2.0

Music & merriment

For a variety of musical experiences, check out the Telluride Jazz Festival (August 1-3, 2014; telluridejazz.org), which has expanded beyond jazz to include funk, soul, Latin music and world beat. Two outdoor venues act as the main stage, complemented by late-night performances at historic theatres and clubs, free wine and spirit tastings, and a raucous New Orleans-style parade. This year’s festival includes jazz legend Poncho Sanchez and recent Grammy winner Snarky Puppy.


Gondola over golden hillsides. Image by jhannon1 / CC BY 2.0

As aspens turn the hillsides golden, the beverages take on a similar hue with Blues & Brews (Sept 12-14, 2014; tellurideblues.com). Here festival goers dance to a classic lineup of funk and blues with a kick, sampling over 150 different craft and microbrews at the official tasting. This year, performances have been added to the Town Park Campground, just southeast of town. If the outdoor venues overwhelm you, the juke joints around town provide an intimate setting for listening.

Telluride’s most acclaimed event is Telluride Bluegrass (June 18-21, 2015; bluegrass.com/telluride), four days of open-air grooving on the summer solstice. From singer-songwriters to bluegrass pickers, performers here come from a wide array of American roots music. Music marathons draw crowds to outdoor venues and cozy clubs, with a lineup that’s often ahead of the curve (acts like Edward Sharpe & the Magnetic Zeros and Mumford & Sons debuted here). This huge event quintuples the local population, attracting 10,000 dedicated festivarians. Their forum at festivarian.com can set visitors straight on everything from packing lists to playlists.


Features - Telluride Bluegrass Festival

The Telluride Bluegrass Festival at sunset. Image by mylerdude / CC BY 2.0

Film fests

The Telluride Film Festival (August 29-Sept 1, 2014; telluridefilmfestival.org) takes place over Labor Day weekend. This massive event ushers filmmakers and stars into town for a carnival atmosphere, and the lineup never ceases to surprise – movies like Juno and Brokeback Mountain first showed here. Budget travelers can take in free seminars and screenings, plus late-show passes offering four films for $60, versus the $25 per film a-la-carte price.

Held over Memorial Day weekend, Mountainfilm (May 22-25, 2015; mountainfilm.org) will kick off the 2015 festival season. This is Cannes for the outdoor enthusiast. The four-day event screens adventure and environmental films, complemented with informal panels, readings and talks by authors and filmmakers. Lining up an hour in advance usually guarantees a spot, and buskers provide live entertainment to those waiting. For those who can’t sit still, there are even hike-alongs with world-class mountaineers like Conrad Anker.

Fitness freaks

Every year on the first Saturday after Labor Day, long-distance mountain runners take on the Imogene Pass Run (September 6, 2014; imogenerun.com), a 17.1-mile gauntlet through western Colorado’s San Juan Mountains. This grueling footrace is known for its unpredictable weather, which can vary between rain, snow and/or fog, or it can be a perfectly clear day, awarding runners the area’s incomparable alpine views. The entrance fee is $75.


Near Imogene Pass. Image by Scott Dingle / CC BY-SA 2.0

Those who prefer to travel on two wheels can enter the Mountains to the Desert Bike Ride (September 20, 2014; m2dbikeride.com), a decade-old, 103-mile downhill route from craggy Telluride to lowland Gateway. Serious cyclists can join the M2D Gran Fondo, which tacks on another 50 miles and a gnarly 1800-foot elevation climb in the final stretch. M2D is now also offering a double century, an extended route that totals 200 miles of paved roads and fantastic vistas. Much-needed beer and ice cream await riders at the finish line, and fundraising benefits the Just for Kids Foundation.

Top tips

For best results, arrive to your festival with a game plan. Juggle overlapping events with an eye on demand and location. Many Telluride festivals have introduced handy apps for last-minute updates. Download these before arriving, as cell service can be spotty in the mountains.

Be aware that Colorado’s high altitude can have noticeable effects. To acclimate, stay hydrated and take it easy for a day or two before strenuous exercise. Warm layers and sunscreen are useful for outdoor venues; evenings get pretty chilly. Those who plan to take advantage of newly legalized marijuana sales should remember that smoking pot is prohibited in public spaces.

Getting around

Consider getting around on foot, since the town is small and parking is notably scarce. The Green Gondola (7am-12am daily; free), aka the world’s most beautiful commute, links Telluride to venues at Mountain Village, the ski resort hotspot nearby.


Telluride is small and wonderfully walkable. Image by Christopher Bowns / CC BY-SA 2.0

Where to stay

Some of the huge properties in Mountain Village offer decent online rates, but none have the character of the smaller hotels downtown. Our pick is the Victorian Inn, which offers easy access to downtown at a great price. Campers should check out festival websites for places to pitch their tents, but with knockout views and riverside beaches, the Telluride Town Park Campground occupies an unbeatable location just a few blocks from the center of town.

Eat and drink

Telluride is one ski town where burger joints are in the minority. There are worthwhile gourmet restaurants emphasizing local food, but evening reservations are a must. Check out New Sheridan Chop House, a steakhouse that fuses American gourmet with French techniques in the heart of downtown. Sampling the food carts, trucks and trailers is also a good way to get in a quick and cheap meal (from $6).

At night, you can escape the crowds and take refuge with the locals at There, a hip, tucked-away social alcove serving hand-shaken cocktails and bar banter alongside delicious nibbles.

Links

Information on all of Telluride’s festivals at visittelluride.com/festivals

Check out Telluride’s official website for more info about the city: telluride-co.gov

Carolyn McCarthy is a Lonely Planet author who specializes in the American West and Latin America. She has also written for National Geographic, Outside, Lonely Planet Magazine and other publications.

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